The Transcendentalists were a reliably sober-sided bunch, starting with their leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that a famous cartoon poking fun at the great man was produced by one of his followers, a poet and landscape painter named Christopher P. Cranch. Cranch’s caricature depicts Emerson as a giant eyeball dressed in frock coat and hat, with spindly legs and no arms. For those who might otherwise miss the literary reference, Cranch appends a passage from Emerson’s first book, Nature:
Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
Emerson’s ungainly metaphor of a transparent eyeball may invite ridicule, but it also neatly captures the experience that Buddhist’s refer to as “naked mind,” the apprehension of reality without the mediation of the self. It’s like being at a live athletic event rather than watching it on TV, where the action is framed by a play-by-play announcer. At the actual event, all is color, movement, noise and excitement, with no one telling you what you are seeing, least of all yourself. There is no longer a frame of any kind around your world, because there is no longer a “me” to frame it.
Words fail at such times, which is just as well, since they can only imprison your experience, like a butterfly in amber. “The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental,” Emerson wrote. By putting names to things we seemingly gain dominion over the world but then find ourselves cast out of paradise. Words are slayers of the real. As William James put it, we do well to “close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.”
Spiritual seekers usually make the mistake of imagining there is something to be gained in finding God, without realizing they risk losing everything they can call their own. They may even harbor some romantic notion about surrendering to God, assuming this would involve an act of will on their part. In reality, there can be no surrender, because in the decisive moment there is no one to do the surrendering. I am nothing, Emerson said, summoning the words only after the fact. Strictly speaking, when one is nothing, there can be no “I.” And when there is no “I,” there is not nothing but everything. I see all, wrote Emerson. I am part or particle of God.
Theologians have a term for the experience Emerson described while uplifted into infinite space. It comes from a passage in one of St. Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Paul wrote that Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” The theological term is kenosis, which is derived from the word in the original Greek of the New Testament for this emptying. Theologians have been tying themselves in knots ever since trying to explain how Jesus could empty himself and still be the Son of God. As applied to others, kenosis also describes the process by which we discover our true nature. Just because we are nothing doesn’t mean we are nobody. Stripped of everything we fondly think of as “me,” all that remains is God.